The grating sound of metal on metal and the shuddering CLANG of heavy prison doors closing on you. The smell of prison; the malicious looks of the guards; the claustrophobic feel of a cell which distorts your intestines and bleaches your thoughts even before you enter.
‘I am legally in Israel. I have not been charged with anything. Does anyone know I am here?’ The walls are as interested as the Israeli guards.
My ‘crime’ was to say I was going to Bethlehem. There were 11 of us on the Easyjet flight from Luton, and every one of us was to be incarcerated in the lies and disinformation that was Givon Jail, Ramla, about 30 km south east of Tel Aviv.
The press dubbed us the ‘flightilla’, and Netanyahu had unilaterally announced we were hooligans and dangerous provocateurs about to undertake violent demonstrations against Israel. In reality we were a bunch of (mostly) middle aged men and women who had been invited by 14 Palestinian civil society groups to join them in a cultural tour, which would include theatre and arts groups dedicated to helping young people to live under occupation and channelling their energies towards passive resistance. To me this way of dealing with the psychology of living under an apartheid system was important and fascinating, and I was eager to learn more.
But we were branded as radicals; this motley crew from Belgium, France, the US, Australia and the UK were suddenly an attack on the very existence of Israel – without a shred of evidence. Some of our party were interrogated by British forces at Luton airport. When they said they were not going to demonstrate, they were accused of lying. We had all undertaken not to demonstrate.
The flotilla to Gaza had been delayed by many weeks, and boats were still trying to get through as we packed our bags. Netanyahu, in his hysterical attack on us, had linked our long pre-booked flight to the flotilla and whipped the press into a frenzy of ill feeling. Watching the news unfold from the safety of my home in Wales, it was disconcerting to see how the facts of our trip were being so grossly distorted, but we were committed to supporting our Palestinian friends in our small way.
It transpired that I, alone, was the one whose passport was stamped by Israeli passport control to go through to Israel and, as I declared, Bethlehem. I waited for others to join me, but to my surprise none did. I was in touch by mobile with those who had been delayed and was told that about 40 people of all nationalities were being held in the basement of Ben Gurion airport. Security cameras had been rigged up and were filming. Suddenly I received a text from a fellow Newport resident. It said: “We are being attacked. GET HELP”. Soldiers had strode into their midst and were heaving people of Arab appearance away. It was supposed to provoke a riot. There were scuffles as those being taken were dragged back, but there was no riot.
I looked around. The airport was almost empty, a few uniformed people were milling around and I tried to enlist their help. They stalled. I showed them my text message and tried to explain the situation. No-one was interested. In the far corner of the large arrivals hall I espied 2 TV cameras so I approached them to enlist some help. I tried to show them the text message. One camera found me interesting, so thinking this was at least some insurance, I strode back into the airport, banging the doors open with my suitcase as I went. I was subsequently told that though they filmed me, my words were mistranslated when the piece was broadcast.
Lined up before me were about 17 security guards ready for trouble. They shooed the journalists away, and to my horror the press meekly obeyed. This left me alone and vulnerable and I knew it. When the doors closed, a large man made a grab for my mobile. I was asking for help at the time and was unprepared for this. With my suitcase in one hand and my phone in the other hand I tried to stay on my feet as a struggle ensued, it was five on one. A hand was held to my throat, my arms were battered, my legs were pulled from under me and I landed face down on the hard floor. Air expelled from my body as the full weight of a 17 stone man landed on the small of my back. I am a 57 year old woman! The mobile clattered in pieces to the floor and my arms were pulled roughly behind me, my wrists roughly handcuffed. I had only asked for help.
The following hours were interesting. I was told I was being taken to see my friends, but instead I was taken to an interrogation room where uniformed people sneered and jeered at me whilst some paperwork was devised, which I was asked to sign. It was written in Hebrew, so I refused. Next they told me I was being taken to my friends, but instead I was taken to a ladies cloakroom where about 20 women continued to try and humiliate me with shouts and snide remarks (you don’t have to know the language). My luggage was ransacked.
Finally they said I was being taken to my hotel, which I thought was strange because I had not booked one. I was unceremoniously put in a compartmentalised police van and shut in for hours. Through the narrow metal grating which served as a window, I could observe uniformed people smoking and laughing. A woman was shouting she needed a toilet. This provoked yet more laughing.
Razor wire, gates, bright lights and shouting announced I was at my ‘hotel’. One man got mad at me when I said I was legally in Israel and was being held without charge. I asked to make a phone call. I asked to see the British consulate. At no time did I raise my voice. He clenched his fists and shouted at me. “WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE. WE DON’T CARE IF YOU ARE LEGAL OR ILLEGAL. WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE”, which was a lovely welcome.
I was shown to a solitary cell and refused to enter. They promised violence. I stood my ground. Finally at 2.00am I was taken to a cell with 5 other women, and there we languished for 5 days. I was never allowed to make my phone call. Our group conversation with The British Consul was recorded.
I have never been charged with any crime nor received any paperwork. I am informed only that I have been in transit, and have never been to Israel. By inference the British Consulate supported this untruth.
There remain unanswered questions:
· Why does my government allow me to be assaulted and held in prison for 5 days without papers, or explanation, or charges?
· Why does my country accept Israel as a sovereign state when it has no fixed borders?
· Why does the UK and EU give Israel special status (EU-Israel Association Agreement) when its Human Rights position is untenable?
· Why can Israel sing in the Eurovision Song Contest and take part in UEFA football championships whilst being an apartheid state?
· Why are British police ordered to act on Israeli paranoia and lies and interrogate British citizens before they go to Israel?
· Why did the British Consul allow our conversations to be recorded?
· Why does the British Consul in Israel say that no visitors are allowed to visit the West Bank, when the FCO website says no such thing?
8 out of 13 million Jews choose not to live in Israel, who can blame them.
Full prison diary is at www.pippabartolotti.blogspot.com